Quality without playing games

October 20, 2000

How can we best monitor standards? Roger Brown outlines his ideal evaluation regime

It is too early to say whether the Quality Assurance Agency's new quality framework will deliver, but, as a report by PA Consulting for the Higher Education Funding Council shows, it is only a part, albeit an important part, of the accountability regime to which all institutions are now subject.

The consultants' report recommends that we should move towards a model characterised by the term investor/partner. This has three main elements: partnership to achieve agreed outcomes from public investments; quality assurance based on institutions' internal systems (something that the QAA is trying to achieve); and continuous dialogue based on shared data about plans and performance.

But I do not think that the report goes far enough. We need to consider the characteristics of an external evaluation regime. The aim of any such evaluation must be to help institutions improve the quality of the education they provide. Accountability can play only a small part in this. A quality regime should promote and achieve improvements in the services offered by institutions to students and employers.

Based on my experience as the head of a quality agency and of a higher education institution, I suggest that an external regime must:

  • Focus on the links at both institutional and sub-institutional level between leadership, quality and effectiveness
  • Ask not how well an institution or department complies with norms, but how well it is achieving the objectives it has set for itself
  • Use a methodology that cannot easily, if done well, be traduced through game playing
  • Cover all the activities of the unit without making artificial and unhelpful distinctions between them, such as between "teaching" and "research"
  • Be accountable to some body that is not controlled either by HE institutions or government.

How might this be achieved? I suggest that we need a single body, which I have provisionally called the Higher Education Audit Commission, accountable to Parliament and charged with scrutinising the effectiveness with which institutions achieve objectives.

This would operate through a combination of audits of institutions (and, on a sampling basis, departments) and studies identifying and disseminating best practice. This model assumes that, after many years of the research assessment exercise and the teaching quality assessment, institutions will have rigorous methodologies for assessing the quality of all activities. The commission would give advice to Parliament, government, the funding agencies and others about management and standards. It would integrate the evaluation functions of the QAA, the funding councils and other external regulators.

These proposals will not be welcome to these bodies. I do not consider that the sector should regulate itself without any external surveillance. Nor do I think we should spend less on quality assurance in the broad sense (ie covering all our activities and not just teaching, learning and research). But I do believe that we could make better use of these resources, providing better value for money for stakeholders and for institutions.

Roger Brown is principal of Southampton Institute and was chief executive of the now-defunct Higher Education Quality Council. His lecture "Accountability in higher education: have we reached the end of the road?" will be given at the University of Surrey, Roehampton, on October 24.

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